CGE Statement on Leaf Blowers

The following letter was submitted on June 11, 2021.

Dear Mayor Biss, City Council Members and City Clerk,

This is to comment in support of the proposed leaf blower ordinance.  Please include our comments as part of the public record.

Citizens’ Greener Evanston (CGE), a community group of about 2,700 members, encourages the City Council to support Ordinance 19-O-21, Amending the City of Evanston’s Leaf Blower Policy for the health and ecological reasons outlined below. However, given the urgency of the climate and pollinator crises, we urge the council to consider this as just one step toward the full ban the council unanimously voted to approve in 2018 when it adopted the Climate Action and Resilience Plan, which lists as a goal on p. 19: “Phase out gasoline- and propane-powered leaf blowers, lawnmowers, and construction equipment”.

CGE recognizes that ordinances are meaningless without enforcement. We urge the City to enforce existing and future leaf blower ordinances to reduce the burden on residents, some of whom have been subjected to confrontations and negative neighbor relations under the current system, which requires photo documentation of use and a court appearance. To this end, we suggest that enforcement of leaf blower restrictions be moved from the police department to the parking division. Further, we suggest that parking enforcement officers locate offenders by following the sounds of blowers in use, in addition to responding to 311 calls. Fines should be leveraged against the property owners who hire or use leaf blower services, and not against the operators, who are often just following orders from superiors. Enforcing this ordinance would generate much needed revenue for the city.

CGE urges City staff to take the lead in actively educating property owners and landscape contractors about why leaf blower use is detrimental to their own and the public’s health, as well as to pollinators, trees and clean air. We also urge the City to discourage such heavy-handed and polluting lawn care practices, given that the grass lawn is an unnatural landscaping concept imported from Europe. Forcing a green lawn of European and Asian turf grasses to displace our natural landscapes, regardless of soil types or climate, costs communities dearly in lost habitat and food sources for pollinators, birds and other wildlife; 30+ % of municipal water supplies that are flushed out through our sprinklers; insecticide, herbicide and fertilizer pollution in our air and groundwater; algal blooms from fertilizer runoff contaminating waterways and drinking water supplies; and 5% of our nation’s air pollution from gas powered lawn equipment, all in addition to the $40 billion per year Americans spend maintaining these unnatural, non-native grass lawns.

Lawn care is big business in Evanston. But the unfortunate fact is that lawn care workers, many of whom are low-income immigrants with few other income opportunities, bear the brunt of exposure to leaf blower noise, exhaust emissions and dust, and that hiring them to hold these machines 1-2 feet from their heads for hours per day can cause them to suffer from long term health damage, including hearing damage, premature deafness, and lung and respiratory damage.

CGE supports a ban on all leaf blowers for the following reasons:

1.      Noise. There is no place in a civilized society for nonessential machines that operate at a decibel level that disrupts the productivity, concentration and sleep of thousands of residents within earshot. Sleep is disrupted for anyone trying to rest after 8am, including babies and young children, third shift workers, the sick and the elderly. Hearing, concentration and productivity are disrupted for school students and workers trying to carry out their daily activities at home or in schools or offices. The high-decibel, low-frequency drone of gas-powered leaf blowers can contribute to hearing damage. It was this public health concern that helped persuade the city council of Washington, D.C., to vote to phase them out by the end of 2021. The low frequency of gas-powered blower engine noise makes the sound especially penetrating, affecting up to 15 times as many households at 75 decibels as a battery-powered blower with the same decibel rating, one study found. CDC says continual exposure to noise can cause “stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other health problems.”

2.      Leaf blowers foul the air and lungs with dust and exhaust fumes and worsen air pollution in our community, where asthma rates are already higher than the national average. In Evanston, low income or black residents have disproportionately more asthma than others, 21% (low income) to 22% (African American) residents compared to 18% for more affluent or white residents, according to the E-Plan Assessment of Needs (2016-21).  Each blower blasts up about five pounds per hour of fine particles of dust, animal feces, mold, fungi, pollen, heavy metals and pesticides into the air, where they are breathed into the lungs rather than lying dormant in the soil. Particulate pollution is inhaled by all of us, and it penetrates deep into lung tissue, increasing our risk of asthma and other respiratory ailments, lung disease and premature death from heart disease. Those especially vulnerable include children and those with pre-existing illnesses like asthma or heart disease. California’s state Air Resources Board found that that gas-powered blowers spew carbon monoxide, fine particulate matter and other toxic and cancer-causing air contaminants, including benzene, 1,3-butadiene, acetaldehyde and formaldehyde.

3.      Insects are in trouble, their losses threatening the future of nature and our food diversity. Leaf blowers blast into oblivion all of the insect pollinators hibernating in the leaves and topsoil. Only a few insects such as monarch butterflies migrate south for the winter; the vast majority spend the winter right here in our yards, nestled as cocoons, eggs or larvae in the leaf litter and topsoil. Scientists worldwide have sounded the alarm of an unfolding “insect apocalypse,” after the first-ever global scientific review of insect numbers in 2019 found that total insect mass has sharply declined in just a few decades, and that the current estimated losses of 2.5% per year could lead to the end of all insect life on earth within 100 years. In 2019, the German government requested that its citizens stop using leaf blowers, saying they are “fatal to insects in the foliage,” after studies there found 75% fewer flying insects in protected areas in just 30 years.

4.      Leaf blowers stress trees in our urban canopy by removing their nutrient-rich blanket of leaf mulch and topsoil. Trees are humanity’s greatest defense against climate change, with powers to absorb and store heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; drink up stormwater; filter out air pollution; and generate fresh, clean oxygen through photosynthesis. In fact, one goal of Evanston’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan is to “preserve, restore, and expand Evanston’s urban canopy, natural areas, native vegetation and green space to maintain and increase carbon sequestration, improve stormwater runoff detention, improve air quality, energy efficiency and livability, and reduce adverse urban impacts on humans and key species such as birds and pollinators.” Evanston’s Forestry Supervisor Michael Callahan advises, “Leaving the leaves where you can will provide organic material that is beneficial to the tree. Any leaf material you can leave in place, or possibly compost for later if you wish to rake, is beneficial and helps reduce stress on the trees.” Examples of this type of stress are drought and the extreme temperature fluctuations caused by climate change.

5.      It wastes taxpayer money and fossil fuels to haul away leaves and yard waste. The City of Evanston pays just over $650,000 to a contractor each year to pick up and haul away our 2,800 tons of yard waste discarded in bins and bags – a cost that is only partly offset by the $225,000 residents pay for yard waste carts and stickers, said Evanston’s former Environmental Services Coordinator Paul D’Agostino. The loads were driven about 50 miles to be dumped at Thelen Materials in Antioch, Ill., or at Midwest Organics in Wauconda, Ill.

Embracing plant debris as valuable habitat in the landscape, and simply leaving a brush pile for wildlife and leaf mulch for insects, could free up this $425,000 in the city budget for other needs, nourish trees in parks and homeowner gardens, and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from diesel-fueled garbage trucks.

Thank you for your consideration of this issue, and all you do for Evanston.

Respectfully submitted,
Citizens’ Greener Evanston